Howard was worried. It would be a disaster if it fell. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s just do it.” He positioned the men, and they loosened the piece from its stand. “Pull!” he said. It came free and they caught the weight. “It’s not bad,” he said as they shuffled toward the wall. “I’m guiding it.”
It wasn’t elegant, but it was the latest chapter in the monumental project to create a 38-figure, 58.5-foot-long bronze sculpture for the new National World War I Memorial in Washington.
The work, underway in Howard’s studio here, just across the Hudson River from New York City, is a little over half completed. Eleven figures have been finished and cast in a foundry in Britain. Nine are being sculpted in clay now. There are 18 more to go.
The project will require many more months of labor, as well as 15 tons of bronze, before it is done.
The sculpture, begun in 2019, is scheduled to be unveiled at the memorial on the site of Pershing Park, four blocks from the White House, on Memorial Day 2024.
The World War I Centennial Commission was authorized by Congress to erect the national memorial. It cost about $44 million, said Edwin L. Fountain, general counsel for the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Two-thirds of the money came from private donors, he said. The site opened in April.
In five scenes, the sculpture will depict the journey of the American “doughboys” from home, through the horror of the 1914-1918 war — which the United States entered in 1917 — and back. It’s called “A Soldier’s Journey.”
There are scenes showing the departure from family, the march off to war, the chaos of battle and the somber postwar return.
The narrative moves from left to right, as the figures advance and plunge into the battle, and emerge transformed. Everything seems to be in motion. Some elements look like they’ve levitated.
There are figures of men, women and children; soldiers, nurses and spouses.
Howard, 58, used male and female models. He used his wife, Traci L. Slatton, to depict a nurse. He used their daughter, Madeleine Howard, to depict a soldier’s daughter at the beginning and end of the narrative.
Despite his wife’s urging, he did not sculpt himself into the piece.
He clothed his models in period garb acquired from memorabilia shops, and had the men portraying soldiers contort their faces to suggest screams and shouts in the battle scene.
The models were photographed with multiple high-tech cameras. The images were fed into a computer system that generated rough foam versions of the figures, over which Howard sculpted in clay.
When each group of clay figures is finished, it is shipped to the foundry. There, molds are made and, from them, the bronzes are created.
Over two days last month, Howard and his team of models, sculptors and helpers worked to hoist the nine clay figures that make up the battle scene onto the display wall to see how it looked.
They had already been working on the scene for nine months.
As they maneuvered the slightly larger-than-life figures, the men grunted under the weight. Howard urged them to be careful with the appendages: “Watch the feet! Watch the feet!”
“I just don’t want to see anything on the floor,” he said.
The memorial is designed to honor the sacrifice of the U.S. forces, which came late to the war but along with France and Britain helped defeat Germany and its allies after four years of killing on an industrial scale.
Great Britain lost about 900,000 men and women, and France about 1.3 million. Germany and Russia each lost about 2 million.
Almost 117,000 Americans were killed — 26,000 in one battle alone in 1918.
The memorial design, co-created by Howard and architect Joe Weishaar, was originally envisioned by Weishaar as a 324-foot-long stone sculpture, Weishaar said in a recent telephone interview.
“It was enormous,” he said, and the idea of using stone was quickly scrapped.
Plus, Weishaar didn’t know any sculptors who could execute the project.
He turned to the Internet, he said, and on the National Sculpture Society’s website he spotted Howard’s work. “This is who I want,” he said he thought. “I want that guy.”
Howard showed “a great level of technical artistry,” he said. “A level of detail and mastery of the human body … that you don’t see anymore.”
“I cold-called him,” he said. “He called me back like an hour later.”
Howard told him a 324-foot sculpture was way too big. “That’s 150 years of sculpting,” Weishaar said Howard told him.
They cut the length down to about 116 feet, with about 60 figures, and in 2016 won the competition to design the memorial, Weishaar said. The Centennial Commission hosted the competition.
“The idea was to tell the story of World War I through visual narrative,” he said. “And in a way that had depth and richness.”
“Neither one of us knew what we were doing,” Weishaar said. Howard “had never done multi-figure composition. … And I didn’t really have much of a background in sculpture.”
“Early on, there was a horse” in the piece, he said. That was eliminated.
The sculpture was still too big, and the review agencies, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, kept asking for something smaller, he said.
But Howard was superb at “editing” the work to make it stronger and more concise. The number of figures was reduced from about 60 to 38, Weishaar said.
“I think 16 versions later we came up with something pretty close to where we are today,” he said.
Back in the studio last month, as the crew moved figures nicknamed “charging guy,” “fierce guy” and “exploding guy,” Howard said, “It’s a miracle that we got through all this stuff.”
“Art represents us,” he said. “What are we? … What does it feel like to be human? And then how do you portray that on a wall with 38 figures in a way that an eighth-grader’s going to get?”
“A lot of sculpture today is just lousy and boring,” he said. “So you’ve got to make something that’s really superlative and gets people juiced when they go look at it.”
Neither Howard nor Weishaar knew much about World War I.
“I didn’t read a single book about World War I,” Howard said.
But he did study images from the conflict. And he drew early inspiration from a poster beside the toilet in the studio restroom. It showed Michelangelo’s 16th-century masterpiece, “The Last Judgment,” a fresco that has hundreds of figures.
“The way that [they] advance and recede was what was missing in my composition,” Howard said.
Also, at first “it was very hard for me to put guns in people’s hands,” he said. He grew up during the Vietnam War and was extremely disturbed by images of the war he would see on television.
But “the more I became involved in the project, the more I realized that this was not about the buttons, the guns, the gear.”
“This was about human beings … being sucked into a very violent adventure that affected us on a global level,” he said. “We lost our humanity. We lost the sense that there was a divine order that drove and maintained our world.”
“My philosophy as an artist is that art is driven by that incredible divinity,” Howard said. “It’s not God. It’s not religion.” It’s a sacred order, he said.
“World War I helped eradicate that … order,” he said. “The war … is the destruction of the divinity.”
As he and his crew struggled to get the 300-pound “monster” in place, they realized it didn’t quite fit in its spot on the wall. It pressed against the artificial backdrop, and part of that had to be cut away. “It’s okay, just do the damage,” Howard said.
Twice the figures had to be removed from the wall and replaced, as apprentice sculptor Christian Ashdale trimmed the backdrop with a utility knife. Finally, it fit.
“We almost lost a million-dollar project today,” Howard said. “But we didn’t.”
Near the end of the second day, after all the figures were up on the wall and sculptor Charlie Mostow had vacuumed leftover debris, Howard sat before the scene for photographs.
“Success, so far,” he had said earlier.
The battle scene — figures Nos. 12 to 20 — had to be ready for shipment by October. Howard said he would take a week off and then start on the last 18.
He had a year and nine months of work ahead of him.